Thanks to sour grapes and special pleading by scholars at the University of Oxford, in 1265 Northampton’s university was dissolved by King Henry III. Exactly 740 years later it was reinstated, this time in a hodgepodge of buildings on the outskirts of town. Come next month, though, the university will be reincarnated once again, this time on a 58-acre site next to the River Nene, a short walk through a tree-lined park to Northampton’s town centre.
Given that the county is reeling, with services cut to the bone after its council in effect went bankrupt earlier this year, the university’s move to its new £330m site, and the resulting influx of student talent, energy and, bluntly, cash, might be seen as the only positive for Northampton.
The vice-chancellor, Nick Petford, argues that as his is the only university in the county, it has a particular onus “to be the glue that tries to hold this together”. The fact that the university is politically neutral, he says, means “we can take a balanced view and hopefully say the things that others can’t because they’re constrained politically, which gives us a power and authority that others might not have”.
He talks about the university’s strategic commitment to making a social impact, and his desire to lever its expertise to boost the county’s education, health, business and culture for all its residents, not only students and staff.
But Petford believes the work of his and other universities in their local communities is taken for granted by central government. “A university like ours that is really punching well above its weight in terms of social impact doesn’t get any recognition for what it does.”
One of the policy motivations for higher undergraduate fees was the view that students, not taxpayers, benefit from higher education. This is a very limited view of the role of modern universities, which make a huge contribution to local economies, says Petford. “I’m going to be talking to the Office for Students [the new regulator] about how universities can be recognised for their social value and their wider benefit to the taxpayer.”
Petford wants the university to be a major player in the governance of local public services: he already chairs the county’s statutory health and wellbeing board, which “works with NHS England, the acute hospitals, children’s services, police and fire, linking all the siloed bodies together to deliver better outcomes”.
He also cites the social enterprises and community interest companies the university has helped to establish: one, a logistics company called Goodwill, helps ex-offenders, addicts and former service personnel into employment with astonishing rates of success; another is for healthcare users to get their voices heard; a third has helped to develop an integrated transport policy for the county.
Employment opportunities may get a significant boost when the spangly new campus comes to town, but for Northamptonshire’s poor, frail, sick, young and elderly residents who depend on a comprehensive array of public services, and who are shuddering in anticipation of ever more vicious funding cuts, just how much difference can a university make in an area whose social and economic fabric is being shredded by lack of funding and county council mismanagement?Northampton’s new campus opens in September.Photograph: John Robertson for the Guardian
Fiona Burbeary, senior lecturer in occupational therapy at Northampton, says some of the most infirm residents have already found their access to preventive health and social care has been severely limited.
“After the council went bust, its First for Wellbeing service, which GPs called on for all sorts [of community help], said they can now only deal with the ‘mildly frail’,” she says. She and her departmental colleague Deborah Hewson saw an opportunity to put their third-year students’ skills to use to help these vulnerable residents.
Helen Arnfield, a recent graduate, did a 12-week placement at a GP practice in her third year. She says the plight of some patients was “really complex”. “There’s everything from a lovely house to a filthy dirty mouse-infested one.” One disabled person was being bullied by local drug addicts and was too scared to go outside.
The impact of placements such as Arnfield’s will be long-lasting: with guidance from the University of Northampton’s enterprise team, she has put together a successful business case for her role to continue now she has qualified. This will take some pressure off A&E, the police and acute mental health and social services, and offers a model of preventative social care that other GP practices could follow.
Other university staff are also coming up with creative ways of filling some of the gaps in services. Jacqueline Parkes, professor of applied mental health at Northampton, is putting her department’s experience and research expertise to use at twice-weekly psycho-social support workshops for people with dementia and their carers. “What happens after a diagnosis [of dementia]? There’s very limited help until there’s a crisis,” she says.
Margaret Lawes, a former midwife and health visitor who discovered she had early-stage dementia in November, says that after attending for several months her cognitive ability score has gone up and she feels much more positive: “We’re waking our brains up through what we’re doing.”
Northampton University isn’t the only higher education institution hoping to help regenerate and revitalise its region. Cumbria – again the only university in the county – is seen as a critical part of the council’s economic strategy to ensure it attracts skilled young people and can offer the employment that they need to remain in the area.
And, in a very different inner-city setting, the University of Salford has recently launched a 10-year, £800m plan to create a new “city district” in partnership with Salford council.
Salford’s vice-chancellor, Helen Marshall, is in discussions with UK and overseas companies to bring their research and development to Salford, and hopes that industry supply chains will follow, along with skilled jobs. “We see it as a blueprint for how we can unlock the right type of prosperity for Salford,” she says. “If you look at it like that, the community aspect lies in giving people a range of job prospects.”
A significant element of the university’s outreach work is improving the aspiration of local people to achieve higher level skills “from the age of six all the way through, developing that ambition with kids”. Salford University, she says, “is way over” its benchmark in terms of numbers of local young people who are the first in their family to go to university.
While some universities have a strong mission to work closely with the community, Dr Georgiana Varna, a lecturer in planning and urbanism at Newcastle University, warns that “there is no secret recipe for how to create a university campus in a city and make sure that it benefits everyone”. She says there can be downsides: the concentration of students in town centres, for instance, can raise housing costs and price out local people.
Universities such as Northampton are keen to do what they can for their communities. But Petford says they deserve national recognition for this wider role. “Higher education enriches society in ways that exceed the benefit to the student – lower unemployment rates, better health outcomes and higher productivity. The potential for universities to build social infrastructure is obvious, but the system must recognise it.”
Source : http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/msn/can-a-university-rescue-a-city-when-the-local-authority-fails/ar-BBMcOS8